The prime minister’s ethics adviser has said there needs to be “greater rigour” in the way ministers’ interests are reported – but acknowledged the system relies heavily on the “good chap” approach where ministers are willing to comply with the rules.
Sir Laurie Magnus told MPs on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee this morning that introducing “greater rigour in monitoring ministers’ interests and in the way they are reported to me” would be a “helpful” change.
He said he intended to bring “regularity into the process” by ensuring annual transparency updates on ministers' interests are published as quickly as possible. Last year’s list, for the 2021-22 financial year which ended in April, was published in May.
However, he rejected MPs’ suggestions that the independent adviser on ministers’ interests should take a more “proactive and inquisitorial” approach to identify failures to disclose interests correctly.
“I think the [ministerial] code is very clear: ultimately, the responsibility rests with ministers to identify potential areas of conflict,” he said.
“They will obviously discuss that with the permanent secretary in the relevant department – and where they want advice, I'm available to provide that and can provide that. That's really important, I think, as a way to potentially mitigate conflicts, or potential conflicts, or perceived potential conflicts.”
But he acknowledged that “you are relying on the ‘good chap’ approach”.
“I think you have to rely on their honesty, their compliance with the seven principles of public life and to recognise that if you have the privilege of a ministerial position, you need to comply with the standards that are expected of you," he said.
He added: “I think that this is where the message and the culture and the tone set from the top is so important.
“The tone from the top is really important in setting the culture of how other senior members of a leadership team behave. You could write every rule in the book, but actually, it is that moral compass and the tone set from the top.”
He said he drew “great comfort” from Rishi Suak’s pledge upon becoming prime minister that “he wants his government to be professional, accountable and with integrity at all levels”, saying: “I think that's an important reinforcement of the importance of the seven principles of public life.”
Magnus was appointed as independent adviser in December; the following month he concluded an investigation into Nadhim Zahawi.
The investigation found Zahawi had breached the ministerial code by failing to tell officials about HMRC's investigation into his tax affairs when he was appointed as a minister. It led to him being sacked as Conservative Party chairman and minister without portfolio.
'Unlikely' the PM would deny an investigation
MPs used this morning's session to grill Magnus on the arrangements for investigating alleged breaches of the ministerial code, which have been the subject of some controversy in recent years.
The independent adviser on ministers’ interests is responsible for investigating potential breaches of the ministerial code. However, they cannot begin an investigation without the prime minister's say-so.
Magnus said he did not believe this would affect his ability to do the job.
“Very importantly, I have the ability to recommend to the prime minister that there should be an investigation,” he told MPs.
“One would normally expect that he would agree to that unless there was a public interest reason for not doing that.”
There have been a number of calls in recent years to give the adviser more authority to begin investigations, following a series of controversies.
Questions arose about the process when allegations arose in 2020 that then-home secretary Priti Patel had bullied civil servants, but Sir Alex Allan, then independent adviser on ministers’ interests, could not begin an investigation into her conduct until directed to do so by then-PM Boris Johnson.
Allan later resigned after Johnson dismissed his finding that Patel had broken the ministerial code.
Magnus said an investigation could be denied in the public interest for reasons such as security concerns. But he said repeatedly that he thought it “unlikely” that the prime minister would withhold consent if he wanted to conduct an investigation of a minister.
Asked what he would do if the PM did withhold consent, Magnus said: “If that does happen, then the reasons for the inquiry not happening are published.
“And that, I think, is an important defence, because then that becomes into the public arena – you become aware of it, you will be asking questions about it,” he told the committee.
Asked whether the requirement for the PM’s consent should be removed, Magnus said the question was “slightly above my paygrade, frankly”.
“The ministerial code is the prime minister's code, it’s his code of conduct. He is responsible for appointing ministers. I'm his adviser. I don't see practically how you could remove the prime minister – without significantly changing the constitution of this country – from that type of exercise,” he added.
Magnus was pressed on whether having these conversations “behind closed doors” could damage public confidence in the system.
But he replied: “I don't think it is behind closed doors. I mean, obviously there is a discussion with the prime minister and officials, which is confidential. If I want to initiate an inquiry and that is refused, then the reasons have to be published. And I think that's a very strong position to be in.”
Magnus was also asked what he would do if he believed he had reason to investigate the prime minister’s behaviour.
“It becomes a very difficult area if the independent adviser to the prime minister, providing impartial advice to the prime minister, is asked to investigate allegations of breach by the prime minister,” he acknowledged.
“I think it's pretty unlikely that that would happen in this case, in my case, with this prime minister, but I think that if he did, I would have to react accordingly,” he added.
He said there “would have to be some serious allegation of breach of the code” for an investigation into the PM to take place.
“I think it's unlikely – but obviously you can never say never,” he added.